Sunday, 28 October 2018

Halloween (2018)

David Gordon Green, 2018, USA

Without being remarkable, David Gordon Green’s continuation of the vast ongoing franchise has a little to please everyone. Although this leaves it open to accusations of being baggy and overstuffed, this is probably a canny move as - as is usually the case with these franchises – it seems an audience doesn’t really want something so different: regard the greatly maligned Myers-less ‘Halloween III’ and the much hated Rob Zombie ‘Halloween’* which, if nothing else, were truly taking a different tact. Green’s entry – written with Danny McBride and Jeff Fradley – leapfrogs over the other sequels and versions and gleefully dismisses the sibling twist of ‘Halloween II’, starting with as clean a slate as possible. Producer Jason Blum prefers the term “reinvention” rather than “reboot”, but contorting over semantics is unlikely to really fool anyone. Endorsed by the return of Jamie Lee Curtis and John Carpenter himself – executive producing and reprising his seminal score – and coming with a distinguished indie director, this certainly comes with as much creator approval as possible for a decades-old product. 

So it’s clean and bright and a little shaggy around the edges, as typical of American indies; meaning it replaces the precision tooling of Carpenter’s original – which, of course, is a genre masterpiece – with a more loose-limbed vibe. This means that there isn’t the sustained stress, suspense and squeeze Myer’s first appearance, but it would surely be foolish to expect to imitate that. Even so, the sequence where in more-or-less one take Michael strolls around the suburbs, wandering into houses and slaughtering residents is a set-piece that comes close. The many call backs to the first film mean fans can have fun spotting Easter eggs, but these are often more than just homages: the Michael-Goes-About-His-Business sequence also mirrors the lurking p.o.v. from the original; and when Laurie is shown mirroring Michael’s poses from the first ‘Halloween’, it goes to indicate how much she is claiming that story as a survivor. She’s been preparing to fight back this time. 

Laurie Strode** has been busy training and arming herself for Michael’s return at the expense of healthy relationships with her family. But this is far from only Laurie’s story: there’s a lot of subplots and a lot of characters where it seems this time Michael’s story is trying to cover as much slasher ground as possible. There are three generations of women to deal with: Laurie, her estranged daughter and her granddaughter. As with most slashers right now, it comes loaded with post-modern self-awareness of Clover’s Final Girl which leads the action by the nose and means to get maximum play. Curtis has certainly been on the promotional circuit highlighting this as a film very much attuned to the #MeToo movement and relishing the kickback, making this very much a film of the moment. But although he was always a threat of male violence, unlike many of the slasher sub-genre he helped inspire, Michael was surely a symbol of The Unstoppable Killer Out There rather than of rampant misogyny (he has always been indiscriminate with his kills). But there is no doubt that this one stems more from revenge fantasies than fear of the bogeyman.

The film begins with a couple of obnoxious podcasters that come to provoke Myers, the kind of critique of a mercenary media that ‘Natural Born Killers’ traded in; then there’s a somewhat off-centre subplot with Dr Sartain (Haluk Bilginer) which certainly fulfils the Gothic protestations that Dr Loomis brought to the original. But mostly what will stand out from this grab-bag of pleasures and diversions is the humour. This is the kind of casual humour that has run through much of Green’s work, not least his work on the amiable series ‘Red Oaks’. The scene where the boy complains to his father that he’d rather really be at dance class than going hunting is a nice nod to how far expectations of gender roles have moved on since the original was unleashed; and it’s not the only humorous moment that then segues into horror that means business. Many audience criticisms I have read seem to object to this, but slashers and horror have always run close to humour, just perhaps not so overt comedy: the criticism is that the humour undercuts the horror, but perhaps the only ill-judged moment is when the smart-mouth of the babysat kid undermines the horror of the closet scene (which is a great scare that is spoilt anyway by being in the trailers).  

There’s a moment when a youth shrugs that Michael’s original kill count isn’t so remarkable in an age when horrific mass killings seems like a monthly event (fortnightly? weekly?); the hoopla around Myers seems like hyperbole. In the original ‘Halloween’ he newly represented the fears that Something Unspeakable was out there threatening the cosy suburbs; indeed, he was bred in the suburbs. But this ‘Halloween’ forgoes the supernatural slant of the original, the move into The Shape: here, he is the returning trauma that must be confronted. It’s entertaining, if not particularly scary, but with enough of a nasty streak and kills to be occasionally unsettling and with humour to keep things on their toes elsewhere. Ultimately, it heads for what, in this scenario, ends up being a happy and triumphant ending. This is the age where getting your own back is in vogue, and that’s always been as prevalent in horror as bad luck. But, of course, there is a just a little ambiguity… there's a franchise to think of, after all.

* ‘Halloween III: Season of the Witch’ has received a lot of reappraisal over time and is certainly regarded more highly now. I have always liked it and the laser-in-the-face and the masks still remain two favourite horror scares. I also have a lot of time for Zombie’s ‘Halloween’, although I doubt that would win me any friends.
** John Kenneth Muir painstakingly decodes Laurie Strodes name to argue that she was always going to be a winner.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

The Creature from the Black Lagoon

Jack Arnold, 1954, b/w, USA

The classic Universal man-in-a-suit creature-feature. We are barely five minutes and we get from God creating the Earth and evolution (??) to a monstrous webbed-hand fossil and - shock! - a similar hand rising from the depths to claw the river’s edge. Then there’s early unintentional humour in some of the dated exposition, most of all when our protagonist explains evolution and the purpose of his research into fossils and aquatic life to the very friends and esteemed colleagues who probably have a very good idea already what he is about. 

But then we are in the Amazon jungle, which has to be credited with retaining the film’s eeriness. Our expedition party is in search of the rest of a fossil found earlier, from a type of monster that is still alive which we see surprisingly early on; no long-held suspense and reveal for this monster-suit. And it’s a seminal monster suit, designed by Milicent Patrick* and convincingly swam by Ricou Browning with the creature played by Ben Chapman on land. Certainly the creature is more fluent underwater and a little jerky up above, but its gaping visage is never less than compelling. From out of the depths the creature comes, representing all the carnal jealously, rivalry and violence barely repressed between David Reed (Richard Carlson) and his employer Mark Williams (Richard Denning), both of whom it seems the love interest Kay Lawrence (Julie Adams) has a soft spot for. 

The famous girl-and-monster synchronised swim hints at sexual symmetry and it is apt that monster often turns up and breaks out when hot personal topics get discussed. Its subtext isn’t hard to trace. Even early on, drifting down the Amazon and indulging in love talk, David says their romance may take a lifetime and Kay’s response of a kiss is interrupted by a primal jungle growl; and this isn’t the only time flirting causes prominent animal cries on the soundtrack. It’s even a feminine boat “Rita” that takes them to the mysteries of the Black Lagoon. Borowczyk’s ‘The Beast’ takes this sexual tension to its logical, comical and icky conclusion, whereas Del Toro’s ‘The Shape of Water’ sees it for romance, gliding over the barely repressed violence lurking under this scenario. And then there's Eric Langberg's thorough reading of the creature as a gay icon.

Arnold was exemplary at this, as evidenced by the many genre treasures he directed in the 50s. There are all the joys of period genre hokeyness but his work is never stupid or laughable. They may be B-movies but there is the sense he always had his eye on the big themes. For example, not only is there the Freudian stuff going on, but there are also issues of colonialism and exploitation  - the creature as nature fighting back - at the edges of all this. 

And after defining many genre tropes and highlights, Arnold can be found directing for a lot of famous Sixties and Seventies television series like ‘Rawhide’, ‘The Brady Bunch’, ‘The Bionic Woman’, ‘The Love Boat’, etc. He was a director that went where the work was, but his contribution to smart period science-fiction and horror is incontestable: Arnold is responsible for ‘It Came From Outer Space’ (which Joe Dante notes is one of the few pacifist sci-fi movies of the era, along with Arnold’s ‘The Space Children’), ‘Tarantula’, ‘The Incredible Shrinking Man’ and ‘The Black Lagoon’ films, which surely makes him genre royalty. 

You probably wouldn’t even call ‘Creature’ Arnold’s best because he delivered so much that was good to consider, but it’s knowing and sly – screenplay by Harry Essex and Arthur A. Ross – and beautifully filmed, even with blunt-force horn blares of creature feature thrills (the first time he appears underwater and we see the face is a sincere jump scare), which of course are all part of what we came for. Quintessential monster movie fun.

* “The designer of the approved Gill-man was Disney animator Milicent Patrick, though her role was deliberately downplayed by make-up artist Bud Westmore, who for half a century would receive sole credit for the creature's conception.”  - Wikipedia  
Milicent Patrick working on The Creature

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Incredible Shrinking Man

Jack Arnold, b/w, 1957, USA

Jack’s Arnold’s classic adaptation of another of Richard Matheson’s genre-defining concepts: exposed to a cloud of radiation and insecticide, Scott Carey (Grant Williams) starts to shrink, and nothing seems capable of stopping this process.

The effects – supervised by Clifford Stine – include glittery torsos, trick perspective shots, split-screen, primitive super-imposition and decent back-projection. The cat attack is a highlight, not forgetting the spider battle, but the whole scale of the project and realisation is impressive: giant drips of water (water-filled condoms), out-sized phones, monolithic stair cases, etc. Its sheer scope remains impressive.

And, of course, this all directly relates to his loss of masculinity. Richard Christian Matheson (the author’s son) says that he thinks Arnold saw in the book “this idea of masculinity being a kind of falsehood, a kind of vulnerable construct, and I think he was very fascinated by that.”* We first meet Carey charmingly bullying his wife into getting him a beer and strikingly peaks in the image of Carey trying to lay down the law from a doll house balcony. Perhaps the film misses a trick in excising the daughter character for the book and therefore establishing his virility. Evidently, he comes from a period mindset where the privilege of male dominance is a given and his shrinking loss of it is more than he can bare. He goes from a man that assumes his privilege is to get his wife to get him a beer – the punishment for this casual misogyny being that he gets exposed to the radioactive cloud that will lead to him shrinking – to self-pitying and then to a diminutive figure fighting living in a matchbox and for resources and survival in the basement. Only when Carey has fulfilled the manly business of surviving and killing and anoints himself triumphant over the universe of the basement is he ready to stop mooching and embrace his fate. The novel makes even more explicit the concurrence between Carey’s increased bitterness as his size diminishes: as Ryan Lamble says: 

“As Carey dwindles in size, so too does sense of power and self-esteem, until he becomes an embittered, deviant character who comes to hate the people he once loved.” 

It’s a vivid metaphor for toxic masculinity that never seems to date.

Wonderfully self-obsessed with its own high-concept, it remarkably takes this to its logical conclusion whilst moving through stages of kitchen sink drama, Atomic Age fear and pseudo-science, metaphysics and body-horror, primal man adventure and monster movie. We have Matheson’s fidelity to his own text to thank here (although the book doesn’t end with “With God, there is no zero”, that punchline is allowable as a concession to a happy ending), but also Jack Arnold’s strong refusal to have a trite ending with something like a serum returning Grant to his original height. 

Carey's transformation is as transcendental and as complete an odyssey as Kubrick’s ‘2001: a space odyssey’, with his established masculinity as a conditional. The closing voice-over speech can be taken as ‘50s cornball pseudo-religious sentimentalism, or evidence of Carey’s delusion and instability of sanity as he shrinks way into … nothing? The infinite? 

* Arrow blu-ray: 'There Is No Zero: Writing The Shrinking Man an in-depth conversation with author Richard Christian Matheson about his father and the creation of the original Shrinking Man novel'.

The Commuter

Jaume Collet-Serra, 2018, France-USA

Poor Liam Neeson: he can’t even get on a train without having to punch his way out.

Jaume Collet-Serra starts vividly enough by rendering Liam’s morning routine in jump-cuts that vary time and moods to give a summary of the everdayness of this family man/insurance salesman/ex-cop (that should come in handy). But Collet-Serra films always have dashes of playfulness such as this temporal trick amidst genre obviousness. At best, this keep things alert and entertaining; elsewhere it means a simple shot down train carriages has to be a trick shot and that it all peaks in a hilariously ridiculous and overblown CGI train crash. But this opening does play on the fact that, despite how big and efficient in a fight he is, there is a vulnerable quality to Neeson, something unassuming that allows him to be relatable and the ridiculous scenarios to spin from an overwhelmed centre.

 So Liam is made redundant but doesn’t have the nerve to tell his wife, and on his way home on the train, Vera Farmiga approaches him. But she’s not looking for a nun (that’s a ‘Conjuring’ reference), but rather someone to complete a task she proposes: find someone that isn’t a regular commuter on the train, tag them with a GPS and walk away with the reward of $100,000. Yes, he’s in a high-concept scenario and it’s soon evident that he’s way in over his head with the malevolent and seemingly mysterious omnipotent manipulators not giving him an inch to get out of it. In fact, so seemingly all-powerful are these puppet-masters, killing people at will and seemingly having foot-soldiers all over the place, that one wonders why they don’t already know who this “Prin” is and why they’re taking so much trouble to frame Liam. But once it’s clear that all this will be solved by punchy action rather than mystery convention, airtight suspense logic isn’t really needed. It's like the good-clueness-man-in-peril Hitchcockian suspenser shoved into a Nineties actioner. 

Indeed, it’s not particularly good but it seems redundant to chastise a film for the very dumbness it’s very self-aware of and playing with. Even the train crash comes on like a kid bashing toys together.  But there’s a side of the film that seems to be trying for a more mature suspense-genre guessing game and tapping into contemporary paranoia that bigger powers and terrorists are all out to get you. But this paranoia is typically taken for granted as a truth in the genre. All it takes is one kick-ass guy to sort it out.

There are faces and names you’ll recognise but they really don’t have much time to mark themselves out; rather they add some semi-prestige as Liam punches his way into greater absurdity, through the implausible conspiracy theory that seems to refute itself as it goes along. You could probably shove this train through the plot holes. It’s the exact same trouble Liam had in ‘Non-Stop’* except, you know, on a train: if I was him, I’d avoid public transport and stay clear of mobile phones.

·         * For a review of ‘Non-Stop’, just change “train” for “plane” in this review.